Class conscious - Andrew Martin fears good writing is becoming elitist
To write well will soon be regarded as a fairly marginal accomplishment
In 20 years' time, how will the magazine journalists of 2004 look back on the wild sallies and daring strokes of their early careers? I picture two of them talking in a bar.
"Do you remember that issue we did - 'The Fifty Sexiest Women in the UK'?" asks the first. "That was a brilliant one." "It was pretty good," says the second, "but not up there with 'Fifty Things You MUST Do Before You're Thirty'." "Yes, that was a cracker," says the third, "but wasn't it 'Thirty Things You MUST Do Before You're Fifty'?" "Or," asks the first, "was it 'Twenty-Seven Things You Must Do Before You're Twenty-Five', because remember how we'd pile on the laughs by having odd numbers sometimes?"
I still enjoy reading Q magazine, but the main feature of every issue is a list, and when I see each new one, on stepping into the newsagent's, it's like being clunked over the back of the head. This month's is "The Greatest Songwriters of All Time".
I used to cut articles out of Q: lots of pieces by Tom Hibbert . . .
a beautifully funny and strange interview with ZZ Top by David Cavanagh . . . and I would put them in a cardboard file labelled simply: "Reread." The current editor of Q was interviewed recently in the Guardian, and he conceded that the old Q had been good, but said it was written in "the language of the public-school boy".
There is some truth in this. I used to review records for Q, and I remember the reviews editor taking me aside to say, "We feel you've slightly misread the new Pat Benatar album." When I asked for guidance on the Q house style, he said: "Think of real ale . . . and P G Wodehouse." The men who founded Q, Mark Ellen and David Hepworth, now run the tellingly entitled Word magazine in which, this month, Clive James laments the decline of public literacy, and the shrinking vocabulary of television presenters. In the same week, I was commissioned to write an article by an online magazine whose editor said: "We don't really bother with flowing text. Just write us a series of bullet points." I worry that, in years to come, a youngster who can write well will be on a par with a kid of today who can, say, play the violin. It will be regarded as a fairly marginal accomplishment, and be similarly tainted with a suggestion of elitism.
I don't think it is right that you should feel guilty at being pleased about the correct use of words, but that is the position in which I find myself. "Penalty for Improper Use": I read that sign on any train and feel a surge of satisfaction at the use of "improper". I was cycling through King's Cross this week and saw that a building firm had pinned warnings to trees for the benefit of lorry drivers: "Beware trunk and canopy". Yes, canopy. That goes down very nicely. I picked up an old chess set of mine that had been shoved under my son's bed. "Complete with stout board, plastic chessmen and rules," boasted the box. I liked "plastic chessmen" - gold star for honesty - and I liked that word "stout", meaning solid and strong.
I award brownie points for anybody who describes a bad situation as anything other than "a nightmare", and feel terrible about doing so. I am sure I've got the wrong end of the stick somehow. There must have been a net improvement in the standard of written and spoken English over the years. It's just that I happen to have in my desk a 120-year-old edition of News of the World, in which it is reported: "Lord Salisbury was greatly fatigued by the Cabinet Council and has had a return of the febrile condition in consequence."
Meanwhile, I notice that the sandwiches sold at branches of W H Smith are now labelled "Foo Go". This must be short for "Food to Go". To the witty individual who thought it up, I say: "Go foo yourself."